Wildfires are threatening communities around Lytton, B.C. and in northern Manitoba, with hundreds of residents forced to evacuate and many others preparing to leave at a moment’s notice as the out-of-control blazes grow in size.
Near Lytton, light rain, lower temperatures and higher humidity helped firefighting crews keep the conflagration known as the Nohomin Creek wildfire at bay, but authorities said it would likely take several days for them to bring it under greater control.
That fire started on Thursday and has since grown to roughly 17 square kilometres. Just over one year ago, a previous wildfire swept through Lytton and destroyed nearly all of the village. Many residents whose homes were destroyed in that fire remain in temporary housing, and the village is still littered with burnt structures.
The largest threat from this latest fire isn’t to the village itself, but rather the area to the community’s west, on the other side of the Fraser River, according to local authorities.
In northern Manitoba, most of the 2,000 residents of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation had evacuated their homes by Sunday, as a result of a 180-square-kilometre fire that was first reported earlier in the week. Jason Small, a Red Cross of Canada spokesperson, said about 30 more people were expected to flee the area by the end of the day on Sunday.
On Friday, with the wildfire only two kilometres away, hundreds of residents fled the smoke-filled community by helicopter, airplane and train. Many of them gathered at a Red Cross staging area in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, then moved on to host locations including Thompson, Winnipeg and Brandon. The Red Cross is working in those places to register the new arrivals and ensure they have essential supplies like personal hygiene items, diapers and baby formula, Mr. Small said.
The Manitoba Wildfire Service said Friday in a statement that crews were on the ground to help protect homes and critical structures.
Among the aircraft being used in the Mathias Colomb relief effort were Royal Canadian Air Force Hercules transport planes. On Friday, the RCAF tweeted that it had been unable to land in the community because of heavy smoke. The force tweeted on Sunday that it had eventually been able to use its aircraft to bring evacuees to the town of The Pas, to the community’s south.
Although the Nohomin Creek wildfire in B.C. has so far spared the village of Lytton, some residents of the nearby Lytton First Nation, located north of the village, have suffered heavy losses. The nation’s deputy chief, John Haugen, said he knew of seven houses that had burned down since Thursday, and he said one person had narrowly saved their home from being engulfed. He added that the area was thick with smoke on Sunday morning.
Roughly 30 of the First Nation’s members, 20 of whom work with the community’s firefighting force, are battling the blaze.
Several areas of the First Nation are under evacuation orders. In the larger Thompson-Nicola Regional District, which encompasses both the First Nation and the village, 31 properties are under standby to evacuate at a moment’s notice, and 24 are already under evacuation orders.
With winds remaining low for the moment, Mr. Haugen said, it’s possible crews could have a better handle on the fire by Wednesday.
“I think we’re going to be mopping up for a while,” he said. “If the weather co-operates, we should be able to knock most of the front of the fire down.”
Nicole Bonnett, an information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, said new crews were arriving on Sunday to fight the Nohomin Creek fire. Those reinforcements, she said, would bump up the total number of workers in the area to 100 and the number of helicopters to 10.
Ms. Bonnett said the wildfire had reached a challenging and labour-intensive smouldering phase, during which ground crews would have to travel mountainous terrain on foot to confirm the fire’s movements.
“Because it’s smouldering, it’s gotten pretty ‘fingery,’ where it’ll spread out in an area but not burn in another area,” she said, noting that this kind of movement is hard to track from an aircraft, because it takes place under the tree canopy.
While light rain and lower temperatures were a positive change for firefighters this weekend, Ms. Bonnett said, the weather won’t significantly help matters by dampening the area. She added that there is a possibility of high winds – something the Lytton area is known for – which could fan the flames and worsen the fire.
The ferry that services the area isn’t running because of high currents on the Fraser River. Mr. Haugen said the outage has meant firefighting crews and evacuees have needed to travel a long gravel road that snakes 80 kilometres north to Lillooet, B.C.
He noted that one Lytton First Nation member was able to help transport fuel and water across the river in their own boat this weekend.
Tricia Thorpe, a resident of the region whose home and farm burned down in the previous wildfire, said many in the community are better prepared for a large blaze after last year’s devastation.
Her new home is made of concrete and any flammable portions have sprinklers set up to protect them from wildfires.
“This place we have, there isn’t a lot to burn here,” she said.
But she said this year’s fire would be emotionally difficult for the firefighters who are returning to town.
“Those firefighters care about the community, and a lot of them live here off season. To watch this happen again to their community has got to be devastating.”
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